1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dionysus
DIONYSUS (probably = “son of Zeus,” from Διός and νῦσος, a Thracian word for “son”), in Greek mythology, originally a nature god of fruitfulness and vegetation, especially of the vine; hence, distinctively, the god of wine. The names Bacchus (Βάκχος, in use among the Greeks from the 5th century), Sabazius, and Bassareus, are also Thracian names of the god. The two first (like Iacchus, Bromius and Euios) have been connected with the loud “shout” (σαβάζειν = βάζειν = εὐάζειν) of his worshippers, Bassareus with βασσάραι, the fox-skin garments of the Thracian Bacchanals. It has been suggested (J. E. Harrison Prolegomena to Greek Religion) that Sabazius and Bromius = “beer-god,” “god of a cereal intoxicant” (cf. Illyrian sabaia and modern Greek βρῶμι, “oats”), while W. Ridgeway (Classical Review, January 1896), comparing Apollo Smintheus, interprets Bassareus as “he who keeps away the foxes from the vineyards” (for various interpretations of these and other cult-titles, see O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie, ii. pp. 1408, 1532, especially the notes).
In Homer, notwithstanding the frequent mention of the use of wine, Dionysus is never mentioned as its inventor or introducer, nor does he appear in Olympus; Hesiod is the first who calls wine the gift of Dionysus. On the other hand, he is spoken of in the Iliad (vi. 130 foll., a passage belonging to the latest period of epic), as “raging,” an epithet that indicates that in those comparatively early times the orgiastic character of his worship was recognized. In fact, Dionysus may be regarded under two distinct aspects: that of a popular national Greek god of wine and cheerfulness, and that of a foreign deity, worshipped with ecstatic and mysterious rites introduced from Thrace. According to the usual tradition, he was born at Thebes—originally the local centre of his worship in Greece—and was the son of Zeus, the fertilizing rain god, and Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, a personification of earth. Before the child was mature, Zeus appeared to Semele at her request in his majesty as god of lightning, by which she was killed, but the infant was saved from the flames by Zeus (or Hermes). The epithet περικιόνιος, originally referring to an ivy-crowned, pillar-shaped fetish of the god, afterwards gave rise to the legend of a miraculous growth of ivy “round the pillars” of the royal palace, whereby the infant Dionysus was preserved from the flames. Zeus took him up, enclosed him within his own thigh till he came to maturity, and then brought him to the light, so that he was twice born; it was to celebrate this double birth that the dithyrambus (also used as an epithet of the god) was sung (see Etym. Mag. s.v.). It has been suggested that this is an allusion to the couvade of certain barbarous tribes, amongst whom it is customary, when a child is born, for the husband to take to his bed and receive medical treatment, as if he shared the pains of maternity (see Couvade, and references there). Dionysus was then conveyed by Hermes to be brought up by the nymphs of Nysa, a purely imaginary spot, afterwards localized in different parts of the world, which claimed the honour of having been the birthplace of the god. As soon as Dionysus was grown up, he started on a journey through the world, to teach the cultivation of the vine and spread his worship among men. While so engaged he met with opposition, even in his own country, as in the case of Pentheus, king of Thebes, who opposed the orgiastic rites introduced by Dionysus among the women of Thebes, and, having been discovered watching one of these ceremonies, was mistaken for some animal of the chase, and slain by his own mother (see A. G. Bather, Journ. Hell. Studies, xiv. 1894). A similar instance is that of Lycurgus, a Thracian king, from whose attack Dionysus saved himself by leaping into the sea, where he was kindly received by Thetis. Lycurgus was blinded by Zeus and soon died, or became frantic and hewed down his own son, mistaking him for a vine. At Orchomenus, the three daughters of Minyas refused to join the other women in their nocturnal orgies, and for this were transformed into birds (see Agrionia). These and similar stories point to the vigorous resistance offered to the introduction of the mystic rites of Dionysus, in places where an established religion already existed. On the other hand, when the god was received hospitably he repaid the kindness by the gift of the vine, as in the case of Icarius of Attica (see Erigone).
The worship of Dionysus was actively conducted in Asia Minor, particularly in Phrygia and Lydia. Here, as Sabazius, he was associated with the Phrygian goddess Cybele, and was followed in his expeditions by a thiasos (retinue) of centaurs, and satyrs, with Pan and Silenus. In Lydia his triumphant return from India was celebrated by an annual festival on Mount Tmolus; in Lydia he assumed the long beard and long robe which were afterwards given him in his character of the “Indian Bacchus,” the conqueror of the East, who, after the campaigns of Alexander, was reported to have advanced as far as the Ganges. The other incidents in which he appears in a purely triumphal character are his transforming into dolphins the Tyrrhene pirates who attacked him, as told in the Homeric hymn to Dionysus and represented on the monument of Lysicrates at Athens, and his part in the war of the gods against the giants. The former story has been connected with the sailors’ custom of hanging vine leaves, ivy and bunches of grapes round the masts of vessels in honour of vintage festivals. The adventure with the pirates occurred on his voyage to Naxos, where he found Ariadne abandoned by Theseus. At Naxos Ariadne (probably a Cretan goddess akin to Aphrodite) was associated with Dionysus as his wife, by whom he was the father of Oenopion (wine-drinker), Staphylus (grape), and Euanthes (blooming), and their marriage was annually celebrated by a festival. Having compelled all the world to recognize his divinity, he descended to the underworld to bring up his mother, who was afterwards worshipped with him under the name of Thyone (“the raging”), he himself being called after her Thyoneus.
Another phase in the myth of Dionysus originated in observing the decay of vegetation in winter, to suit which he was supposed to be slain and to join the deities of the lower world. This phase of his character was developed by the Orphic poets, he having here the name of Zagreus (“torn in pieces”), and being no longer the Theban god, but a son of Zeus and Persephone. The child was brought up secretly, watched over by Curetes; but the jealous Hera discovered where he was, and sent Titans to the spot, who, finding him at play, tore him to pieces, and cooked and ate his limbs, while Hera gave his heart to Zeus. The tearing in pieces is referred by some to the torture experienced by the grape (Naturschmerz) when crushed for making into wine (cf. Burns’s John Barleycorn); but it is better to refer it to the tearing of the flesh of the victim at sacrifices at which the deity or the sacred animal was slain, and sacramentally eaten raw (cf. the title ὠμηστής given to Dionysus in certain places, probably pointing to human sacrifice.) To connect this with the myth of the Theban birth of Dionysus, it is said that Zeus gave the child’s heart to Semele, or himself swallowed it and gave birth to the new Dionysus (called Iacchus from his worshippers’ cry of rejoicing), who was cradled and swung in a winnowing fan (λίκνος; see J. E. Harrison, Journ. Hellenic Studies, xxiii.), the swinging being supposed to act as a charm in awakening vegetation from its winter sleep. The conception of Zagreus, or the winter Dionysus, appears to have originated in Crete, but it was accepted also in Delphi, where his grave was shown, and sacrifice was secretly offered at it annually on the shortest day. The story is in many respects similar to that of Osiris. According to others, Zagreus was originally a god of the chase, who became a hunter of men and a god of the underworld, more akin to Hades than to Dionysus (see also Titans).
Dionysus further possessed the prophetic gift, and his oracle at Delphi was as important as that of Apollo. Like Hermes, Dionysus was a god of the productiveness of nature, and hence Priapus was one of his regular companions, while not only in the mysteries but in the rural festivals his symbol, the phallus, was carried about ostentatiously. His symbols from the animal kingdom were the bull (perhaps a totemistic attribute and identified with him), the panther, the lion, the tiger, the ass, the goat, and sometimes also the dolphin and the snake. His personal attributes are an ivy wreath, the thyrsus (a staff with pine cone at the end), the laurel, the pine, a drinking cup, and sometimes the horn of a bull on his forehead. Artistically he was represented mostly either as a youth of soft, nearly feminine form, or as a bearded and draped man, but frequently also as an infant, with reference to his birth or to his bringing up in “Nysa.” His earliest images were of wood with the branches still attached in parts, whence he was called Dionysus Dendrites, an allusion to his protection of trees generally (according to Pherecydes in C. W. Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. iv. p. 637, the word νῦσα signified “tree”). It is suggested that the cult of Dionysus absorbed that of an old tree-spirit. He was figured also, like Hermes, in the form of a pillar or term surmounted by his head. For the connexion of Dionysus with Greek tragedy see Drama.